This story originally appeared in The State on March 13, 2011.
A walk through a hilly forest near Chapin High School will take you to a winding creek, lined by towering hardwood trees and small, leafy bushes.
Once part of an outdoor education center, much of the creek stands in the way of a $45 million school expansion project.
Until a legal dispute over the creek’s future is resolved, the massive expansion project is on hold - and settling the dispute may be months away.
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Lexington-Richland 5 school board member Kim Murphy - who is alone on the board in opposing the project - said she is prepared to continue her court fight, even if she loses the first round of the legal war this spring.
”I will consider that,” Murphy said Friday.
At issue is whether to fill 727 feet of an unnamed creek and a sliver of wetlands near the school for part of the construction project. Murphy said the creek needs to be saved, but school officials say they have.
The year-old standoff concerns many community leaders, who want the matter resolved and the project started.
”It’s gone on far too long,” Lexington County Councilman Johnny Jeffcoat of Irmo said of the dispute. “It looks ridiculous.”
Some Chapin High students even have joined protests, starting an online petition and pledging to show up at Monday’s school board meeting. They want a resolution to the disagreement so the district can build classrooms and move pupils out of portable buildings.
Many people have leveled criticism at Murphy, saying her legal war is part of a larger agenda to limit school construction approved by voters in 2008 in the Irmo-Dutch Fork-Chapin-area district.
District officials characterize the creek she’s fighting to save as little more than a storm-water drainage ditch that dries up from time to time. Without the flow of storm-water runoff, some school officials say, the creek would have little water in it.
Murphy and her attorneys dispute that. They say it is a natural headwaters stream that would flow even if storm water did not drain into it. There’s no need to clear-cut a forest and fill a creek when the project doesn’t require it, they say.
Murphy contends there’s room elsewhere on the grounds to build a planned parking lot and two new ball fields. Murphy says changing plans wouldn’t cost any more money, but the district disputes that.
”I’m concerned about our ecosystem and water quality, but I’m also concerned about the practice of constructing sports fields in a wetlands area when there are sites on the Chapin High School parcel that are more suitable and much less costly to develop,” Murphysaid. “To a lot of people in the Chapin area, this defies common sense.”
Frogs and towering trees
The disputed creek, which runs for more than 1,500 feet below Chapin High, is special to Bill Grant.
Grant, a former science teacher at Chapin High, established an outdoor education center on the property while he was employed at the school in 2005.
With a $5,000 grant from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Grant and his students established trails through the property, built bridges across the creek and erected signs detailing the types of trees found there.
His students also learned about the natural world, not in a classroom, but in the forested creek bottom.
”The kids were amazed at what was there,” said Grant, now an environmental consultant. “This was better than nice. It was so unique to have a high school that had the kind of property where kids could see in practice the concepts taught to them in school.”
Grant shook his head as he walked through the forest recently. Since he left Chapin High about five years ago, the property has fallen into disrepair. A picnic table he and the students built is broken, a footbridge has washed into the creek, and many of the interpretative signs have fallen down.
But that doesn’t make the property any less special to him. A trained forester, Grant quickly ticked off more than a half-dozen tree species that grow in the park-like forest near the stream.
White oaks, red oaks, post oaks, red maple, sweet gum, beech and white ash are some of the trees found in the old education center. Some of the trees are more than 100 years old and stand in excess of 60 feet tall.
Grant, who is not involved in the legal case to stop the creek from being filled, said he doesn’t think the expansion project should be done at the expense of the piedmont forest and its wetlands. And he said it’s a shame that all his students’ work to label trees and improve the property has gone to waste.
”It’s despairing to see that something like this could happen after all of the effort we put in,” he said.
Joe Cockrell, a Fish and Wildlife Service official who approved the money for the education center, said the property to be developed is a mature, scenic woodland with plenty of habitat for birds and small mammals.
”I don’t claim to be knowledgeable about the needs of the school district, but I do know that this was a good place to use as an outdoor classroom and learning center for children,” he said.
Cockrell said he was surprised to receive a letter from District 5 in 2009 asking to cancel the $5,000 grant with the Fish and Wildlife Service. The agreement to maintain the property was supposed to last until May 2015, records show.
In 18 years of coordinating the grant program, Cockrell said, no one has ever asked to get out of such a contract. Schools such as Heathwood Hall in Columbia also have received money through the service for campus nature centers, he said.
The renovations would put sewer lines, storm-water drainage, a road and the edge of a parking lot in an area where part of the stream sits.
The rest of the creek would be spared, and some of the trees on the lower part of the site would not be cleared, according to Murphy and a scaled back version of the expansion plan.
As a tradeoff for filling part of the creek, the district will preserve a similar length of a creek in adjoining Newberry County. That type of swap, known as mitigation, is done when building projects alter stream flows or destroy wetlands.
The site in dispute has been on school grounds for 40 years, left alone except when used briefly as Grant’s outdoor classroom, school officials say in court records.
Amy Armstrong, an environmental attorney from Pawleys Island, said people who want to develop property have figured ways to avoid headwaters streams. Headwaters are where creeks start, often with groundwater welling up and draining away. These streams are particularly important to water quality downstream and to wildlife.
Armstrong, who is not involved in the Chapin High case, settled a dispute that saved a creek several years ago at a Walmart construction site in Ballentine.
One of Murphy’s lawyers, Bob Guild, said headwaters streams have been under siege as South Carolina has developed. It’s not unusual to hear of a developer wanting to fill in such a creek to accommodate a project, Guild said.
”They were being filled at an alarming rate at the time the economy was booming,” he said.
District 5’s plan has approval from the state Department of Health and Environmental Control and the endorsement of other natural resources agencies. Murphy has appealed the DHEC water quality decision to the state Administrative Law Court. If she loses, Murphysaid, she could take the case to the S.C. Court of Appeals.
Critics say politicians used political muscle to win DHEC approval, as well as concession from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources and federal agencies.
State Reps. Nathan Ballentine and Chip Huggins arranged for DHEC officials to meet with school leaders last year after complaints that state review of the project was slow.
Both Irmo Republicans said they didn’t press for approval but wanted everyone to sit down and help settle some questions. And it led to changes satisfactory both to school and DHEC officials, such as removing an athletic practice field and protecting a tenth of an acre of wetlands adjoining the stream, they said.
”If political influence is me getting people to sit down and talk,” Ballentine said, “then I did that.”
District in turmoil
The squabble over the renovations is the latest engulfing Lexington-Richland 5 schools.
School leaders and a group of skeptics that includes Murphy regularly write competing commentaries for weekly publications and Internet sites.
Each side suggests the other misrepresents many aspects of what’s at stake.
School officials say the delay in the start of renovations at Chapin High threatens to cut up to $1.6 million in improvements at the school. That’s largely to pay for expected increases in construction costs.
Some parents and students at the high school are angry about the delay, mostly at Murphy. Most of those upset live in Lexington County, unable to challenge Murphy since she holds a school board post from Richland County.
But supporters praise Murphy for standing up to pressure.
”She’s doing the right thing, trying to bring attention to the way they do business,” Wayne Duncan of Chapin said.
The battle is costing taxpayers more than the prospect of fewer renovations at Chapin High.
So far, school officials report spending $280,000 in legal fees and an additional $275,000 in work trying to come up with a design acceptable to all sides and to testify in the appeal.
Murphy says she is largely paying for her appeal personally, though she declined to give the amount.
She reports receiving $2,300 from a group that includes Duncan and former Lexington County Councilman and Auditor Art Guerry. Guerry said he gave $500 at the request of a friend who was seeking help for Murphy.
Critics, including some other board members, say Murphy is trying to sabotage the package of school improvements approved by voters in 2008 that she opposed.
That package includes new schools in the Spring Hill area. Some homeowners there worry new schools will attract development that will destroy the semi-rural character of the area.
”Her interest is not so much the environment as in going after the school district and the bond issue,” said Pam Mason of Ballentine.
School officials are concerned that the delay at Chapin High will make it difficult to complete other parts of the school expansion package.
The slowdown could push work five years beyond the deadline for starting improvements, they say.
Murphy insists some renovations could start while the dispute over the wetlands is decided in court, but school officials say work is impossible until the location of sewer lines is final.
Offers to Murphy for compromise go unanswered, school board chairman Robert Gantt said.
”We’d love a settlement, but the only way so far to do that is to do it her way,” he said.
Mason says Murphy seems intent on a vendetta.
”Every time they try to build something, she’s going to go after them,” Mason said. “She hangs out with a group that doesn’t want taxes to go up. That’s their mission.”
For Murphy, it’s a matter of what she says is doing the right thing for the environment and for the school district.
”Compromise is certainly possible,” she said, without giving details, “but the district has never considered any option other than filling the wetlands to build the ball fields.”